The Sydney-born actor and writer made his name in London by following his performance in Yerma with an equally acclaimed turn as the polymath. Now playing a dance coach, he tells Nick Smurthwaite why he won’t stand still
When Brendan Cowell played the title role in Life of Galileo at London’s Young Vic last year, the Independent’s Paul Taylor was so taken with his performance he described it as “magnificent”, adding it was “as if his pleasure in the use of reason were an implacable bodily urge”.
Not bad, given it was less than a year after the prolific actor-writer had left his native Australia to try his luck in the UK, and only his third acting job in London.
The director Joe Wright had seen Cowell in Simon Stone’s acclaimed production of Yerma, also at the Young Vic, so when artistic director David Lan floated the idea of a modern-dress Life of Galileo, with Cowell as Brecht’s earthy polymath, Wright leapt at it.
Cowell says: “When they offered me Galileo I told them I’d dropped science at 16 and that I barely knew what a Bunsen burner was, let alone the moons of Jupiter. So Joe and I were these two guys who were eager to learn what Galileo was all about. One of David’s great talents is for putting the right creatives together.”
Galileo had all the more impact for being staged in-the-round. “It was genuinely terrifying because you had to make sure you played to the whole audience all the time and utilise their closeness,” says Cowell. “But that’s why I came here – to be challenged. And, believe me, it was really, really challenging. Full on for two and a half hours. I fell to pieces every night after the show.”
Less strenuous, but possibly no less challenging, is Cowell’s latest theatrical venture, playing a pushy coach to eight pre-teen girls (all played by adults) entering a dance competition in Clare Barron’s award-winning Off-Broadway comedy Dance Nation, which has just opened at the Almeida.
Cowell describes the character he plays as “morally barren and inappropriate, but he has what it takes to get them over the line”. He says: “Actually I didn’t really want an acting role at the time I was sent the play but it read so well and it was so funny I couldn’t resist taking it. Also, I’d always fancied playing a coach.”
Cowell’s early creative promise was in writing. He grew up in Cronulla Beach, a suburb of Sydney best known for its surfing, in an artistic family. One older sister was a pop singer, the other a ballerina. “I got driven around a lot to gigs and theatres, wondering what it was all about. I started writing poetry and lyrics very early on, and I worked up an impersonation of Michael Jackson, changing the lyrics to his songs,” he says.
Despite the early promise, it took him a long time to realise he could be a writer as well as act. “I was this know-nothing kid from Cronulla Beach. I never felt smart enough to be a proper writer. It wasn’t until I came out of university I’d sit through a play thinking: ‘Who is this play talking to? It’s not talking to me.’ That was the spur: to write a play that spoke to me.”
He wrote his first play, Men, for himself and his two best friends to perform in 2000. He was 23 and it was staged in the basement of the Old Fitzroy Hotel in Woolloomooloo. He told the Sydney Morning Herald afterwards: “We got a standing ovation on opening night. Judy Davis was there. It was like, what the hell is going on? That’s when it hit me: I could write plays.”
His third play, Bed, won the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award in 2001, while his 2009 play Ruben Guthrie, produced at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in 2009, was made into a film, which he directed.
A recurring theme of Cowell’s work has been the communication, or lack of it, between adult males. “Sometimes I feel like men aren’t built to talk it out like women do,” he says. “They are better off kicking a football or helping each other move house, something where they can help each other physically. In the media, men are portrayed as simple guys who love a beer or want to know the cricket score, but isn’t that what prevents us from saying: ‘I’m lost, I’m depressed, I’m scared?’ We don’t feel we are allowed to say we have a problem.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I dressed up as a lion for a car sales promotion stunt.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I played Ghost in The Recruit for Sydney Theatre Company in 2002.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t try to write something clever – make a play you’d like to see.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Reading Harold Pinter and Sarah Kane.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be open and try to connect with the director.
If you hadn’t been an actor and writer, what would you have been?
His more recent play, 2015’s The Dog, produced in a double bill with Lally Katz’s The Cat, struck a chord with Sydney theatregoers, and is now to be staged at London’s Hope Theatre in Islington, just down the road from the Almeida, in September.
In The Dog, a newly separated writer, drunken and shambolic, moves in with an old friend, an uptight IT nerd, along with his dog Jerry. They take turns to walk Jerry in the park and finish up vying for the affections of another dog owner, the highly desirable and clever Miracle.
Cowell admits this contemporary take on The Odd Couple is semi-autobiographical and, once again, he had himself and his friends in mind for acting and directing roles when he wrote it. “I’d been watching a lot of dystopian, German-style drama at the time and I just wanted to write something that gave people a cracking night out, with plenty of good laughs,” he says. “It is completely bonkers and raucous, and audiences love it.”
I always want to push myself to do better. I wasn’t scared of being a tiny fish in an enormous bowl
His decision to leave Sydney and move to London in 2016 was driven largely by professional frustration. “I was feeling restless and unhappy. I didn’t know what else to do,” he says. “Without meaning to sound arrogant, there is a lower roof in Australia of things to do and people to work with. Coming here opened up a whole other landscape. Sure, it was hard to leave my family and my friends but I’m somebody who always wants to push myself to do better. I wasn’t scared of being a tiny fish in an enormous bowl.”
That tiny fish got into the swim in the role of Billie Piper’s laddish partner in Simon Stone’s much-acclaimed modern-dress version of Yerma, which played two seasons at the Young Vic as well as a run on Broadway.
“It was the greatest showcase for me,” says Cowell. “The entire industry came to see it, and in New York we played to audiences that included people like Robert De Niro and Steven Spielberg. On top of all that, I was welcomed into the Young Vic family by David Lan, who then cast me as Galileo.” His previous UK performance was in The Wild Duck, also directed by Stone, at London’s Barbican theatre.
It also entitled him to something called an Exceptional Talent visa, which allows someone to work in the UK for up to five years, with an option on renewal.
Cowell seems happy at the prospect of staying here, with a number of TV writing projects in the pipeline, as well as a renewed enthusiasm for acting. “Right now I feel I’m 80% actor, 20% writer, which is the opposite of what I was in Australia,” he says. “I keep getting drawn to the theatre because I love it. I’d love to have a crack at some of the big Shakespeare roles but I don’t know if my accent would be a problem.”
At 42, he is finally starting to relax about his lack of formal training and the fact he didn’t get into any of the Australian drama schools in his youth. “I’ve always felt comfortable on stage, ever since I was a young man. When I was doing Galileo I knew how to involve the whole audience.”
He did a “catch-all course” in media, communications and theatre at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, New South Wales. “It taught me how to go into a pub full of guys who’d had too much lager and put on a show. If you can pull that off, you can do anything.”
Born: 1976, Cronulla, Australia
• Men (as writer/actor), Old Fitzroy Hotel, Woolloomooloo, Australia (2000)
• Bed (as writer) (2001)
• Ruben Guthrie, Belvoir St Theatre, Australia (2008, later filmed in 2015)
• Hamlet, Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Opera House (2008)
• True West, Sydney Theatre Company (2010)
• The Slap (as writer, TV mini-series, 2011)
• The Dog/The Cat (as writer, 2015)
• Yerma, Young Vic, London (2016)
• Life of Galileo, Young Vic, London (2017)
Agent: Sian Smyth, Hamilton Hodell